COLLECTIBLE BOOKS: Echoes of the Drum
The auction of a book by Schadeberg reminds us of a vital era of SA history
Jürgen Schadeberg, the Drum photographer who introduced photojournalism to SA, took his first photographs at the age of 12 during World War 2 in an air-raid shelter in Berlin.
When he became the “carefree” chief photographer of Drum, he captured the atmosphere of Sophiatown in the 1950s, a period which many regard as the high point of SA’s urban black culture.
White Man in a Black World by Robert von Lucius, a section in the book, Schadeberg, deals with Schadeberg’s experiences in Sophiatown before forced removals of the inhabitants. It was described as the Black Paris, and offered the jazz, dance halls and bars of the townships which Schadeberg found so cheerful. He saw it as an escape from the boredom of the white man’s urban lifestyle of tea rooms, cricket games and the cinema.
He was not highly regarded by whites, who shunned him, some even regarding him as crazy. Yet it was he who helped establish the Drum style of “combining culture and politics”. Some go so far as to say that his photojournalism to an important extent “was the breeding ground” for the black consciousness movement that led to the resistance movement organised by Steve Biko, and the student protests in Soweto in 1976.
During the racial unrest of the 1970s he photographed ill-treated farm workers and black prisoners. He had also photographed those shot at Sharpeville in 1960.
Other Drum photographers at the time included Ian Berry, Peter Magubane, Bob Gosani and Alf Kumalo.
When Drum management was taken over by Jim Bailey, it changed from being “a paternalistic tribal rag” about sport and stars into “an urban reportage magazine” with Anthony Sampson as editor-in-chief.
A good number of people he photographed in those years were committed to the politics of change and later became political leaders who would determine the future of SA. Nelson Mandela was one of these and before his death he and Schadeberg used to meet to talk about the Golden Age of Sophiatown.
Mandela was photographed regularly by Schadeberg when there was not much interest in the Orlando boxer who was also an inner-city lawyer.
In the early 1950s black fashion models did not exist. Drum changed this when it showed women as glamorous and modern in spite of makeshift garments and improvised styling. The models became the stars of the time when “men were men and women sirens”.
Models proliferated with titles such as Model with an Umbrella, Smokebreak, a Woman Posing with a Cigarette.
Christine Baloyi, dressed fashionably and scantily was showing her new domestic worker’s passbook. Without it women could be arrested for vagrancy.
Then there was “Sweet 18-year-old Doris, a cute fashion conscious little dame sizzling with appeal who combines pin-upping with singing.”
The township pictures are of shows, music and dances which were inspired by Harlem and New Orleans, Satchmo, the Ink Spots and the Mills Brothers.
Dancing at the Ritz in Johannesburg was stylish and acrobatic. The picture shows a Fred Astaire styled dancer leaping in the air accompanied by his smartly dressed partner wearing a top hat.
On Friday night the music was good and the hall packed.
Bandleaders and musicians such the versatile Gwigwi, Ntemi and Bennie “Banjo” Werbi provided the music for dances like the kwela and the township shuffle. And the most famous singer at the time was Miriam Makeba.
More unusual were the We Three The Jazz Dizzlers Band. They claimed that every Sunday morning at 11am they jazzed the church bells at Gwigwi’s, fortified by a bottle of dong.
Sophiatown was multiracial, where all races could own property, and spawned a multicultural society. The township attracted jazz musicians, singers, writers and artists. It was declared a black spot. Then came the forced removals to outlying areas.
Until then its vibrant lifestyle continued. Schadeberg could still photograph smoke-filled gambling dens and men playing morabaraba on the pavement. A bold sign painted on a wall in the background reads “We Will Not Move”. A boy could still use a brick-strewn street of demolished houses as a track for his bicycle wheel. The book has a number of scenes where residents with their belongings are waiting on pavements for the government lorries to take them to their new homes.
The final picture of the book shows a man walking through Sophiatown, now nearly completely demolished. The caption says it all: “Take a last look and say goodbye.”
The book is currently on auction online at www.jellyfishtree.com.